Barack Obama isn't looking as good as he did when he had the interviewers all to himself in the first few days after negotiators left Lausanne with smiles and handshakes, but nothing more than oral reports about what had been agreed to date.

 
Commentators have poked around the details and are asking tough questions. Iranians are saying either a complete end of all sanctions or they can live without any deal. A couple of old wise men--George Schultz and Henry Kissinger--are saying that Obama caved in to the Iranians, and doubt that what's been done so far--and is conceivable in further negotiations--has made the world safer or the United States a leading figure in its future.
 
What's next?
 
As always, scenario builders should consider probabilities, and the economics of benefits and costs.
 
Alas, when dealing with the slippery stuff of politics and international relations, there are no hard data to allow the calculation of probabilities or tangible benefits and costs.
 
The concepts remain useful, even if loose.
 
Barack Obama has another 22 months in office, and he has established himself as a President who prefers negotiations over force. However, the balance we see in his actions is not overwhelmingly away from force. He has helped with actions against Libya, the Islamic State, and the operations of Saudi Arabia and Egypt against Iran's puppets in Yemen. He pulled troops out of Iraq but not out of Afghanistan. 
 
With Iranian warships heading for a possible confrontation with Saudi and Egyptians in the strategic strait alongside Aden, that could develop into something that would affect the US posture toward Iran's nuclear program.
 
That is far from a sure bet, and the possibilities of an escalation up to an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is even further from certain. 
 
Whether or not things move along such a path, American and Israeli officials will continue to ponder the benefits and costs associated with doing something more forceful than talking about Iran's nuclear program.
 
On the basis of what we know, it's only the Americans and Israelis who are likely to consider anything forceful. Moreover, each have their own calculations, and we can bet that neither will act directly against Iran.
 
Both have recognized the costs of an attack. 
 
Iran is not a paper tiger. It can send missiles with conventional warheads against Israel and other allies of the United States, as well as against US military bases in the Middle East. Its Hezbollah clients can rain thousands of missiles on Israeli civilians, but at the likely cost of Israel destroying significant elements of Lebanon's infrastructure, as well as targeting the villages and towns of Lebanese Shiites where the missiles are stored and from which they will be fired. In such an exchange, with differentials of civil defense, one might expect hundreds or thousands of Israeli casualties, and tens of thousands of Lebanese casualties. If Israel goes after Lebanon's port facilities and electric plants--which it did not do in 2006--it can set back the entire country by decades.
 
All know that it is easier to begin a war than to control its outcome.
 
Probabilities would lead us to expect that Obama will keep negotiations going, even in the face of Iran moving closer to weapon capacity. He can rely on promises to retaliate if Iran were to use a nuclear weapon, and leave the consequences to future presidents.
 
Israel as well is likely to rely on its deterrent capacity, rather than pre-empt. Several years ago the IDF command persuaded the team of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the chances of an attack's success were such that Israel could only delay Iran's nuclear achievement, and that an attack would increase the chances of an eventual nuclear attack on Israel.
 
Now the same probabilities are weighed even more against against an Israeli attack, given the likelihood that Iran's facilities are more spread out and bunkered, and that it is considerably closer to its own capacity to retaliate with a nuclear weapon.
 
The lack of a more satisfactory deal may keep US and European sanctions in place, or even increased in severity. However, that would require US and European politicians to stand firm against politically robust claims of business executives about lost opportunities, lost profits and jobs if western sanctions continue while Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey and lesser others do what they can to evade them.
 
There are several possibilities that can change the probabilities and benefit-cost assessments.
 
One is whatever develops around Yemen. A frontal clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be a game changer, bringing in the United States as a major supplier of munitions, and/or as an active participants in keeping Iranian warships bottled up in the Persian Gulf. One can imagine a nightmare where the Russians and/or Chinese become involved on the Iranian side in order to keep the Persian Gulf open for the flow of Iranian oil.


Another set of possibilities may begin in the US Congress, if Republicans recruit enough Democrats to a proposal requiring Congressional action with respect to what is emerging as a deal with Iran. That would need votes to overcome a Presidential veto, but current speculation is that there are enough Democrats unhappy with what Obama has accepted from Iran. If Congress becomes an active player, the same coalition of Republicans and suspicious Democrats would likely increase US demands on Iran and forestall any agreement.


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Perhaps the most likely scenario is a continuation of blah blah from all concerned, negotiations without end, and Iran reaching nuclear weapons capacity--with or without a test--in the not so distant future. 


Then Israel would presumably increase its capacity to retaliate sufficiently after an Iranian first strike, in order to dissuade the Iranians from attacking. The reputation of Barack Obama would go deep into the tank created  by those inclined to blame him for the folly of a strategy that began with a Cairo talk preaching equality and democracy to Muslims, speaking out but failing to act against Syrian use of chemical weapons, and sticking to negotiations with the Shiites of Iran.


Those heaping scorn on the name of Barack Obama might also emphasize his insistence that Islam is not a religion of violence.


Political calculations being what they are, we can do no more than hope that our future, and that of our children, won't be worse.



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